Roy Jenkins

Roy Jenkins

Roy Jenkins was born in Abersychan, Monmouthshire, on 11th November, 1920. His father was Arthur Jenkins, president of the South Wales Miners' Federation and the Labour Party MP for Pontypool. Jenkins was educated at Abersychan Grammar School and Balliol College, Oxford, where he won a first in 1941.

According to John Campbell, the author of Roy Jenkins (2014), Jenkins had a homosexual relationship with Anthony Crosland, while at Oxford. The book claims that they had a "homosexual fling" and quotes Jenkins as telling Crosland that they had “an intense friendship of a kind that neither of us are ever likely to experience again”. They shared their time “in complete mutual absorption and complete mutual loyalty… wrapped up in our own two interwoven lives”.

During the Second World War Jenkins served in the Royal Artillery and for a while he worked as a codebreaker at Bletchley Park. In 1945 he married Jennifer Morris. Philip Johnston has argued: "Their homoerotic partnership (with Crosland) was broken by two events: the outbreak of war and Roy’s realisation that he preferred women, after meeting his future wife Jennifer, to whom he was married for 58 years. He would later become something of a Lothario, boasting many affairs, including with the wives of two of his closest friends."

A member of the Labour Party, Jenkins was elected to the House of Commons in 1948. At first he represented Central Southwark but at the 1950 General Election moved to Stechford, Birmingham. This was a time when the Conservative Party held power but Jenkins gradually became a leading figure in the shadow cabinet.

After the Labour Party won the 1964 GeneraI Election the new prime minister, Harold Wilson, appointed Jenkins as aviation minister. The following year, Jenkins became home secretary. While in this post he encouraged the passing of private members' bills that legalized homosexuality and abortion. He also abolished theatre censorship. As a result the Daily Telegraph called him the “father of permissiveness”.

Denis Healey later argued: "In my view, Roy Jenkins's best period in office was as Home Secretary in the Cabinet of 1966; he then succeeded in stamping his liberal humanism on a department not notorious for that quality. He was not well suited to the politics of class and ideology which played so large a role in the Labour Party. His natural environment was the Edwardian age on which he wrote so well. He saw politics very much like Trollope, as the interplay of personalities seeking preferment, rather than, like me, as a conflict of principles and programmes about social and economic change."

In 1967 Jenkins became chancellor of the exchequer, the second most important post in the Cabinet. Over the next three years his main strategy was to get the balance of payments in the black. By the time of the 1970 General Election he had acquired the nickname of "Surplus Jenkins".

Roy Jenkins
Roy Jenkins

The Conservative Party won the 1970 election. When the new House of Commons assembled Jenkins was elected deputy leader of the Labour Party. At the 1971 Party Conference he argued strongly for Britain to join the European Community. Jenkins lost the vote by five-to-one and he upset the party when he defied a three-line whip to vote with the Conservatives on this issue.

The Labour Party won the 1974 General Election and Jenkins once again became home secretary. He was responsible for two important pieces of legislation, the Sex Discrimination Act (1975) and the Race Relations Act (1976). He also led the successful "yes" campaign in the referendum on membership of the European Economic Community. When Harold Wilson resigned in 1976 Jenkins stood for the leadership of the party. However, he came only third behind James Callaghan and Michael Foot.

In 1977 Jenkins left the House of Commons to become president of the European Commission in Brussels. In this post he began to advocate the idea of European monetary union. This was considered to be too radical at the time and the result was the introduction of the European monetary system. However, he had laid the foundations for what was later to become the single currency in 2002.

The political views of Jenkins were unpopular in the Labour Party and in 1981 he joined Shirley Williams, David Owen and William Rodgers in setting up the Social Democratic Party (SDP). Jenkins became leader of the new party and in 1982 he returned to the House of Commons as MP for Glasgow Hillhead.

At the 1983 General Election the SDP-Liberal Alliance achieved 25% of the popular vote. However, the SDP won only 6 seats. After the election Jenkins resigned as leader and was replaced by David Owen. In the 1987 General Election Jenkins lost his seat at Glasglow Hillhead. Created Lord Jenkins of Hillhead he became the leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords.

In retirement Jenkins concentrated on writing and published several books including an autobiography, A Life At The Centre (1991) and two best-selling biographies, Gladstone (1995) and Churchill (2001).

Roy Jenkins died on 5th January, 2003.

Primary Sources

(1) Harold Wilson, Memoirs: The Making of a Prime Minister, 1916-64 (1986)

Hugh Gaitskell showed great courage in leading and organizing a nationwide campaign against Suez. He was an obvious target for the Conservative press, who were loyally supporting their Prime Minister, for, as past history since the Boer War has shown, calm statesman-like criticism of a government's action during a war is quickly branded as treachery and a betrayal of HM forces.

We all took part in the operation, christened the 'Law not War' campaign. At one Shadow Cabinet meeting I reminded my colleagues of the occasion during the Boer War (when the Liberal Opposition was split on the issue) that Lloyd George had had to be smuggled out of Birmingham Town Hall disguised as a policeman to save his life. I said that I hoped that the luck of the draw would not lead to my being sent to Birmingham.

I was, in fact, sent there. The main hall was packed, as was a smaller hall which was linked to the platform by a public address system. Roy Jenkins, himself a Birmingham MP, rightly accused the Government of causing "enormous damage" to the chances of success of the simultaneous Hungarian revolt against Russia "for the sake of a squalid adventure in the Middle East". In fact, I did not have to don police uniform and, together with Roy, was cheered to the echo.

(2) Denis Healey, The Time of My Life (1989)

In my view, Roy Jenkins's best period in office was as Home Secretary in the Cabinet of 1966; he then succeeded in stamping his liberal humanism on a department not notorious for that quality. He was not well suited to the politics of class and ideology which played so large a role in the Labour Party. His natural environment was the Edwardian age on which he wrote so well. He saw politics very much like Trollope, as the interplay of personalities seeking preferment, rather than, like me, as a conflict of principles and programmes about social and economic change.

Though his father had been a miners' agent in South Wales, who served as Attlee's Parliamentary Private Secretary, Roy's drawling voice, his pronunciation of 'r' as 'w', and his sometimes lackadaisical manner limited his appeal to the Party activists. Yet he was a brilliant Parliamentary debater, and could rouse enthusiasm even in the Labour Party Conference when he spoke on a subject like the Common Market, on which he was passionately committed. He had the same capacity as Nye Bevan and Hugh Gaitskell to inspire a deep and personal devotion among his disciples.

(3) British Broadcasting Corporation (5th January, 2003)

Former Labour Chancellor and Home Secretary Lord Jenkins of Hillhead has died, aged 82. He collapsed at his home in Oxfordshire on Sunday morning, a spokeswoman for his family said.

After serving twice as home secretary in a Labour Government, Lord Jenkins was one of the "Gang of Four" who formed the breakaway SDP party in 1981.

Former Labour Prime Minister Lord Callaghan said: "He was one of the outstanding statesmen of his era."

Lord Owen, a co-founder of the SDP, said: "He was by any standards a major political figure and historical figure in the context of the last century."

Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith said: "He was a big political figure and his passing is a sad moment."

Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy said: "Roy Jenkins was a great man and a great personal friend."

(4) Statement issued by Tony Blair (5th January, 2003)

Roy Jenkins was one of the most remarkable people ever to grace British politics. His influence on it is as great as many who held the office of Prime Minister. He had intellect, vision and an integrity that saw him hold firm to his beliefs of moderate social democracy, liberal reform and the cause of Europe throughout his life.

Even those of us who disagreed with the decision to form the SDP admired the way he never wavered from the view that the British people should have the chance to vote for a progressive politics free from rigid doctrine and ideology and one that stood in the tradition of Lloyd George, Keynes and Beveridge as much as Keir Hardie, Attlee and Bevan.

He was a friend and support to me and someone I was proud to know as a politician and as a human being. As his brilliant biographies demonstrate he had extraordinary insight and a naturally unprejudiced mind. He was above all a man of reason. I will miss him deeply.

(5) John Campbell, Roy Jenkins (2014),

The son and grandson of miners, raised in the South Wales coalfield - his trade union father was actually imprisoned during the General Strike of 1926 - Jenkins had an impeccable Labour pedigree. It was of the sort romantic class warriors from Hampstead and Holland Park such as Left-wing Labourites Michael Foot and Tony Benn would have given their eye-teeth for.

But from the very start, he never attempted to play on his background. At Oxford University, friends urged him to make more of it when standing for office in the Union, but he refused. "The poor are poor," he told them. He didn’t want "any sob-stuff" to promote his cause. He would not act up to the part.

All his adult life, he indulged in expensive pleasures, delighted in high-born company and presented an air of lordly entitlement. As a Labour politician (until he defected to the SDP), this left him open to charges of hypocrisy and betraying his roots. He didn’t care. He was what he was, and that was that.

His origins, anyway, were less horny-handed than many imagined from his Welsh valley roots. His father had been a miner, certainly, but there was never any question of his son following him down the pit. By the time Roy was born in 1920, Arthur Jenkins was already a full-time union official on a middle-class salary, chairman of the Pontypool Labour Party and a county councillor.

When Roy was 14, Jenkins Snr was elected MP for Pontypool. He quickly became Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) to the party leader, Clement Attlee, and held that position throughout World War II when Attlee was deputy Prime Minister. He was then briefly a minister in the Labour government that triumphed in the 1945 election.

(6) John Campbell, The Daily Mail (2014)

Arriving at Oxford University from lowly Abersychan County School in South Wales in 1938, Roy Jenkins acquired a new accent - that distinctive and rather posh drawl that was to be the delight of impressionists in years to come. His ‘Rs’ came out as ‘Ws’, and the sound he made was such that a fellow undergraduate took him for an Old Etonian peer’s son.

It wasn’t the only significant change in him. The miner’s son brushed up against young men from public schools, most notably Tony Crosland - ‘the most exciting friend of my life’ - with whom he would be intimately entangled for the next 38 years in a relationship that was both personal and political.

The young Crosland was a striking figure, 15 months older than Jenkins and a year ahead of him at Oxford. He was from the Home Counties, his father a senior civil servant, his mother an academic.

‘Tony was immensely good-looking and elegant,’ Jenkins recalled. ‘He wore a long camel-hair overcoat, and drove a powerful MG sports car known as the Red Menace. I found him rather intimidating, until he came to my rooms on some minor Labour Club business and remained talking for nearly two hours. Thereafter, I saw him nearly every day.’
Crosland at this time in his life was openly gay - it was part of his slightly dangerous glamour - and part of Roy’s attraction for him was probably sexual. There is a strong homoerotic undercurrent in his letters. Years later, Roy confessed that Tony had successfully seduced him at least once.

As Home Secretary in the Sixties, Jenkins would become a driving force behind the decriminalisation of homosexuality, but he himself was not by nature gay - far from it, as his string of mistresses later in life showed. But he fell for a time so wholly under Crosland’s spell that he might have tried anything.

In one of their first letters when both were at their respective homes in Pontypool and Sussex for Christmas, Crosland teasingly likened his ‘boy friend’ to a ‘handsome (& pansy) Beau Geste’ and warned him not to forget that ‘drink, women and sleep are all things to be taken in small quantities!’

In the early days of their relationship Jenkins was clearly the junior partner. The more confident Crosland embraced an upper-middle-class form of socialist politics that was at once cerebral and romantic, egalitarian and elitist.